Ben Notes: Five Ways Improv Will Save The World

In case you haven’t memorized it yet, here is the mission of Bright Invention, the organization I run:

Bright Invention uses improvisation to empower people and organizations to unlock their potential.

An improv stage . . .

An improv stage . . .

Quick! I say “improv”! And you see . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

  • a room full of awkward young people trying to be funny?

  • Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady doing amazing improv on the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

  • an enthusiastic facilitator trying to get room full of anxious corporate types to “loosen up and have some fun!”

Yes . . . all of these images are true and real. And . . . improv is so much more. At Bright Invention we feel improv is not simply a way to have some fun (although having fun is an essential feature of it.) We believe improvisation - as it “was invented, in America, by young, mostly middle-class amateurs, performers, and producers who, in the true spirit of the form, were making it up as they went along” is a way to save the world. The quote, by the way, is from Sam Wassoon’s wonderful book Improv Nation.

I see you rolling your eyes. Save the world? you ask. Pu-leeeze . . . so let me just get to it.

Improv reveals your innate empathy, and dampens your innate competition. Wassoon writes “players understood that no improvisational ensemble could sustain an atmosphere of competition…creating spontaneous realities en masse demanded…patience and consideration.” We live in an era of intense competition, exacerbated by what I call “the binary plague”: win/lose, either/or, black/white, liberal/conservative. This zero-sum, win-at-all-costs mindset is breeding paranoia, depression and adherence to the “assumption of scarcity.”

But improv is based on an extraordinary pact of acceptance and trust between players. No one wins, and no one loses. Our only way forward is to find something in our partner’s offer to play with, build on and care for. Slowly we begin to understand that our future (in the scene and in our lives) depends on our ability to empathize and work with others well.

Improv reveals our innate authenticity and power. Ask a friend how they feel in the face of the world’s events, the evening news, or even her own loved ones’ journeys. Oftentimes you will hear, “powerless.” This lack of agency is tied to a deeper condition: it is hard for us to feel fully “ourselves”, or to be confident we even know what “ourself” is. Granted, the self is an evolving and moving target - but we at Bright Invention believe there is such a thing as authenticity: the state of being in creative play with no cover, no apology, no shame. Improv gently washes away the extra nonsense and reveals . . . you! The further you go with improvisation, the more authentically you you become.

It’s a paradox (improv is full of those!). How is it that I become more me by pretending to be all those other imaginary people I make up on the spot? The answer lies at the bracing center of improv’s creative process: in improv the ideas you bring to life, the words you speak, the things you do in partnership with other actors come from you. Without a script, improv relies on who you are to make the stories come to life on stage. And the more you do this, the more you discover that who you are is amazing: smart, funny, decisive, caring. As the mother of improv Viola Spolin wrote, “Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”

Improv puts us in the present moment to deal with what is. Ever feel like you’re always re-visiting yesterday, or lost in projections about tomorrow? Take an improv class, and you will be gently returned over and over to the present moment: what is happening right in front of you. Not only that, you will discover skills which allow you to work with what is, to build on it with someone else, and ultimately help its necessary evolution. Improv is a mindfulness training, as we learn to calm our monkey-minds and actually see and hear what the person in front of us just said, and also the way they said it, and then discover that we have a reaction to share with them.

Improv madman and genius Del Close said “Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.” The observation he speaks of is the observation of what is actually happening. In this way, there are no mistakes in improv. What happens, happens. And then we play with it. It’s a radical acceptance which we find serves us in all areas of our lives.

Improv makes us relationship experts. My dad is not one who gave fatherly advice very often. But one thing I vividly remember him saying to me is that “the success of anything you do will be based on the quality of the relationships you make.” In this age of digital information, virtual experiences and augmented reality we are paradoxically coming to understand the value of “in real life” interpersonal relations. Deep in our DNA we humans are a tribal species. We crave community and personal connecting. We crave touch, laughter and meaningful exchanges. Improv is not only a way to have those exchanges in our lives, but to joyfully study them, to notice what makes those exchanges thrive and what makes them whither and die.

The madman again: “Every interpersonal situation has a solution in which everyone wins (Del Close).” That sounds nuts, right? But . . . it’s true, and this is why so many improvisers have found our way into the world of applied improvisation, bringing that magic improv mojo to conflict resolution, corporate culture change, and customer service. Improv is a dynamic way to study human interaction and relationship, and in doing so, refine our own ability to navigate tricky relationships and build extraordinary ones.

Improv is the opposite of cynicism. Maybe the greatest threat we face, born of the environmental degradation we must reverse, the political morass we find ourselves in, and the shocking events which pass on our screens before us, is cynicism. Now more than ever we need a populace which believes we can do it, that it’s worth saving, that humans are not irredeemably corrupt, chronically stupid and brutal. I know . . . it’ a hard sell. But seriously - what other choice do we have?

Cynicism is giving up, and it is and always has been the easy way out. The romantic, the optimist, the visionary - these are the ones among us in whom our future lies, and they are exhausted. Improv is based on the most absurd and improbable optimism: that if I just accept whatever you say to me, and then build on it a little, and then you accept whatever I say, and then build on it a little, we can do anything, go anywhere, solve any problem (please note: accept doesn't not necessarily mean agree with!) And in dusty classrooms, theater basements and rec rooms all over our fine nation this truth is revealed every day. Improv is giving birth to a new generation of hope and optimism - and boy do we need it.

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

So now that you’re convinced, what next? So glad you asked! Check out The Improv Resource Center and The Improv Network online. Or, search “[your city] improv” and I bet you find some cool stuff to do!

I think “saving the world” occurs one person at a time. Seen in this light, the best hope we have are people who work on improving themselves, and share some joy while they do it. Let’s find our way back to a playful mindset, and save the world one person at a time.